When There's Nothing More Doctors Can Do for Your Pain


A great deal of time with chronic illness is spent looking for that something. We might have gotten past looking for a complete cure, but we may still think there will something that makes it better: the right specialist, the right physical therapist, the right drug. The right crystal. The right astrological alignment. After a few years, you try everything.

I had a bit of nice progress earlier this year, when I finally saw a pain management specialist who made the base of my spine hurt less, so I can sit more easily. The progress has worn off now, but I saw him again yesterday and he can zap some nerve endings and hopefully repeat the trick.

The big question I had for him, however, was about the rest of my spine. It hurts a great deal higher up too where metal rods have been used to straighten it. I calmly asked him for honesty: is the upper back and shoulder pain treatable? We are looking at how on earth we can afford to run the next couple of decades of family life, and if I can’t return to classroom teaching, we need to try to plan around that.

He looked straight at me and explained that it’s very difficult. He can treat specific areas of pain, but not widespread ones. There’s always hope for a little improvement, of course, especially if the base of my spine improving allows a bit more mobility, but he was “right out of magic wands.”

This man has been of much more help to me than the various surgeons I have seen, and he has written guidelines for the UK government on treatment of back pain, so I am reasonably convinced that his answer is definitive. It was also crushing. It wasn’t a total surprise – I was told when I had the rods inserted that there would always be some pain – but this man has been so helpful and so nice and so not patronizing that I was rather hoping that he was the mythical Right Doctor For Me who would sort it all out. If he isn’t, then I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.

I was, surprisingly, mildly relieved on one level. The search for the solution to chronic pain is exhausting and those of us with a pain condition often feel guilty for not managing to stumble over our Holy Grail, even though we want to more than anyone. It is better to have a clear picture, too, in terms of what kind of job we need my husband to pursue and the limits on how much I can contribute.

It is still very disappointing, however. I don’t like being in pain, obviously, and I don’t like the limits it is going to place on my family as well as on me. Every mother wants to give her kids everything and no wife wants to feel as if she’s leaving her lovely husband to carry the whole load. I will get my head around it, but today I seem to be stuck under my duvet, grateful for a short pause before I get up and start getting on with it again tomorrow.

Getty Image by Obencem


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